Based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson (The Sheperdess & the chimney-Sweep), Mr. Wonderbird (Sir Peter Ustinov) tells the story of two lovers who flee their two dimensional painting and are then hunted by a mean-spirited King.
August 10, 2010
Probably the worst version of this forgotten classic, but still quite important!
This is most likely one of the worse english film adaptions I've ever seen, and I thought I've seen worse. However, I feel obliged to say that if you are as interested in this film's history as I am, then you might at least want to watch this cut of the original film, to see what Grimault snipped from his definitive version released a few decades later.
Otherwise, I'd just stick to the later cut, which although is in french, is higher quality, and with a less annoying voice cast.
July 18, 2010
To broadcast this version is a bad trick on Paul Grimault.
This version of the movie, finished in 1952 by André Sarrut against the wishes of the authors, has been rejected by Grimault and Prévert. Many years later Grimault recovered the copyrights and the negative. He retrieved as much copies as he can and destroyed them. He cut the Sarrut's bad scenes out, especially at the end of the story, completed the film with Prévert, and named it "Le Roi et L'oiseau". The music by Wojciech Kilar is on the final 1979 version, not on this one (Source : Paul Grimault, "Traits de mémoire", Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1991). This "Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird" should simply be banned.
April 2, 2008
Animator and actor Paul Grimault, who appeared in Vigo's 'L'Atalante' (1934), suggested to Jacques Prevert just after the last war that they tackle an adaption of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Shepherdess and The Chimneysweep. The result was a remarkably little-known (at least amongst English and American film lovers) animated feature, La Bergère et Le Ramoneur,(1952) reissued as Le Roi et L'oiseau (1979). It has also been called by the considerably more crass title 'The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird', or even the bald 'Mr Wonderbird To The Rescue', for its rare surfacings on video. The title tangle reflects the film's obscurity in the English speaking world, as well as the difficulty in categorising a work which is at once a children's film, a polemic fantasy and a uniquely French cultural piece.
Prevert, better known as the collaborator with Marcel Carne on such films as Les Enfants du paradis (1945), brought a distinctive brand of poetry and wit to the project which, in its first incarnation took six years to complete. Money problems and disagreements with the producers caused it to be issued, but with Prevert's name removed, in 1952. It was only after twenty years that Grimault was able to see the project completed to his full satisfaction, whereupon it promptly won the prestigious Louis Delluc prize.
The action takes place in the imaginary kingdom of Takicardia, ruled by the unpopular King -whimsically named `Charles V and three makes eight and eight makes 16'. The action is narrated in retrospect by the cheerful, omnipresent Mr Bird, who supports and guides the hero and heroine. King Charles (a curious mixture of Mayerling's Crown Prince Rudolf, Ben Turpin and Mussolini) is a squint eyed, conspicuously vain, autocrat who `hated everyone, and everyone hated him right back'. He is fond of shooting and capturing birds, living apparently without queen or immediate family in a labyrinthine palace.
After an abortive, shooting interlude, (Mr Bird has already shown us the grave of his wife 'killed in an unfortunate hunting accident') and a witty scene during which he confronts a nervous painter, Charles retires to his 'private and secret apartments' on his palace's 96th floor. Here he contemplates his latest portrait, and those of a chimney sweep and shepherdess already hanging there. He is in love with the image of the girl, viewing that of her painted companion with disdain. That night, while the King sleeps, all of the portraits come alive and, to avoid an impromptu marriage with the royal, the sweep and shepherdess make off. Meanwhile the King's own portrait has become animated, discovering its own love for the sweet girl. He disposes of the real king down a convenient trap door, assumes the throne and pursues the elopers with all the apparatus of the state.
The pursuit, and eventual capture of the two, is what occupies the rest of the film. Grimault sets the action amidst the passageways, steps, waterways, roofs and basements of the grand palace. Its baroque setting, with its distinctive use of perspective, recalls the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The design of the palace, and its roof top scenes, probably influenced the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's realisation of Cagliostro's castle in his 1979 anime of the same name. For Charles' castle is a wonderful invention, characterised by floating and elevating thrones, bowler hatted policemen, huge galleries, canals, and an exotic skyline of spires, balustrades and minarets. It is also a place of danger. Trap doors open at the touch of a button, eliminating those who displease the king - another element taken over by Miyazaki, incidentally. The king also uses a robot, the machinery of repression made concrete, to pursue his love. Its lumbering yet delicate presence reminds the viewer of the metal gardeners in Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) as well as the more recent American release Iron Giant (1999).
Prevert's script juxtaposes different values, or 'arts', and asks us to draw our own conclusions. Do we prefer the vanity and artificiality of portraiture, self-indulgent architectural follies, and grandiose self-admiration? Or the simple charm of a bird call, a blind street beggar's hurdy gurdy, the simplicity of true love? Prevert has his answer ready: he clearly values spontaneity and truth over artificiality and obsequiousness. Wojciech Kilar's superb score complements this with a lovely, plaintive piano main theme, as well as a range of parodic marches used for 'royal use'. (One especially relishes the automated band in the metal giant's chest.) Prevert's script is also concerned with the atmosphere of oppression, and the struggle for liberation. In the aftermath of the Second World War, life under The Occupation was still fresh. King Charles' secret police (who at one point develop the disconcerting ability to fly like black bats) are bumbling, but undeniably still intimidating. Takicardia may be an incompetent state, but one whose determined overthrow will reduce everything to rubble.
In the basement of the palace, where the two lovers eventually are cornered, are starving lions and a blind musician. `Does the world really exist and the sun really shine?' he asks plaintively before adding `They saw a bird - there must be hope'. In an extraordinary scene, the beasts waltz to the hurdy-gurdy man's instrument, being dissuaded from eating the chimneysweep by the power of music, before the bird's propagandistic speech raises their ire and they assist in the royal downfall. Theirs is a literal underworld. One whose muted despair and foreboding recalls Prevert's scripts for Quai des brumes (1938) or the doomed waiting of Le Jour se lève (1939), redeemed here by the power of art.
In an interview (Jeune Cinéma, n° 128) Grimault stressed the importance of the film as not just being for children but, in its way, as unique a work as the animations of the Americans, a radical and long lasting achievement. Viewing it today it is hard not to disagree with him.